Monday, November 07, 2005

VIVA la Review

I have now taken York Region's new VIVA service for slightly more than a week now. The service provides rapid transit services along designated corridors using buses that only stop at designated interesections. Overall, there are both benefits and some problems that York Region Transit (YRT) and its private consortium need to work on. The private consortium, working with the region on the VIVA system, includes such corporations as: AECOM, IBI, Delcan, Kiewit, and Ellis Don. The dream of VIVA is actually a pretty good one on paper and, eventually will be once fully implemented on the roads. You will find the complete plan here . Phase one, as mentioned in the article, is now almost fully launched. However, along with this dream, there are current problems that will can either be solved right away or in the future once all three phases of the VIVA plan have been implemented.

The first issue I had occurred on the VIVA Purple route while testing it out for my new job I was going to start on the following Monday. On Friday October 28th, the VIVA Purple bus arrived at Promenade Terminal to do a regular pick-up. However, another driver came over and said to the driver of the VIVA vehicle that it was time for her break. It took the driver, who was not expecting her break, a little while to collect her items and switch spots with the new driver. I still question this decision to switch drivers right in the middle of the Purple route instead of waiting until the bus reached its terminus (York University) where the bus normally waits five minutes or slightly longer before turning itself around and heading back in the other direction. These five minutes or more would have provided the perfect opportunity to change drivers. Besides, York University has both a food court, public washrooms and plenty of space to have lunch inside and outside.

Another issue is when VIVA drivers have to answer the call of nature. I have had two occasions where VIVA drivers have disrupted service in order to visit the washroom. The first was on VIVA Orange on Wednesday while returning home from work. I was on VIVA Orange heading northbound to York University when, just before making the normal right hand turn onto Keele Street, from St. Regis Crescent, the driver pulled over the vehicle. She then got out of the bus and headed to the Baker's Dozen location on the south-east corner. The vehicle waited five minutes with five people on board. This same situation apparently occurs quite frequently as a driver on Friday heading westbound to York University of VIVA Purple had to do the same thing at the Richmond Hill Centre Station while a full bus of passengers had to stop their lives on their way to work in the morning. Apparently VIVA/York Region Transit didn't think about the call of nature. This situation has to be fixed soon with apropriately timed breaks for drivers. Couldn't the supervisors, or whoever sits in the idling cars at York University and Richmond Hill Centre, take over the route for a while so these poor drivers can go to the washroom? Apparently not. I am stunned this situation continues to occur. I have asked several times to both VIVA supervisors and drivers themselves. Both the drivers and supervisors indicate there really is no alternative but to stop a full vehicle of passengers in order to answer the bathroom call. I beg to differ.

The off board fare machines have become a major problem in terms of fare inspectors. Here is an example that I thought might happen and actually did on Thursday morning at the Bernard Terminal heading southbound on VIVA Blue. The Bernard Terminal fare machine was not operational. In other words the touch screen was not operative. I pointed out the machine was not operational to the transit inspector on board the bus and he said he had already called it in. I wonder how can York Region Transit fare enforcement officers enforce the VIVA fare system properly if the fare machines are down so often? This past week I have also noticed that the Dufferin Stop at Centre Street Westbound (on VIVA Purple) touch screen was not operating and the ticket validator at the southbound Elgin Mills (on VIVA Blue) was down as well. I have seen, since starting to ride VIVA, that the Bernard Terminal seems to be down off and on ever since the VIVA service started. So, again, how are tickets supposed to be issued by YRT fare enforcement officers if fare collection is such a problem?

However, I do agree with the fare structure. York Region Transit has really thought this out by providing a substantial savings over what GO Transit used to rip us off with in Northern York Region. To compare, York Region Transit charges those of us in Aurora to travel to Finch Subway Station $3.25 cash fare while GO Transit charges $4.75. Add tickets and the savings is even more. No wonder GO Transit saw the Yonge Street corridor as a large moneymaker.

By looking at the operation of the electronic schedules at each stop, I wonder if YRT bought a bunch of lemons? I mean the electronic schedule (e.g. orange-York University 4 minutes) at the Northbound 16th-Carville Station (on Viva Blue) was down for maybe two weeks. Also, every trip I seem to take I spot at least one or two malfunctioning touchscreen fare purchasers or the electronic schedule shows "consult schedule" or something to that effect. If these off board fare vending machines are new now and malfunction, what will happen five years down the road?

York Region Transit seems to want to keep riders from actually making sure its riders arrive on time, or really wants its riders to ride its buses for long periods of time instead of getting their riders there as quickly as possible. This is because quite a few of its local routes (e.g. Route 98, etc.) seem to be frequently late. It is a wonder how these local routes make connections with others at all.

Also, the VIVA schedules, which were on the York Region Transit Website when the VIVA service was first launched, have since been removed. The schedules were replaced with very basic information saying that the services run every aproximately every 10 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes in non-peak periods. This causes an issue if you are travelling off peak as waiting 15 minutes for a bus seems a little questionable. Try riding figuring out a 8:00 P.M. trip from Bernard terminal to connect with Route 85 (Rutherford/16th Avenue route) in order to head westbound to Vaughan Mills. It is almost impossible and you must budget the 15 minutes extra because VIVA might have just left before you even arrive at Bernard. Sure GO does this on the Newmarket "B" route, but at least GO Transit provides a schedule to their service. Perhaps York Region Transit would provide schedules to their off peak service and leave the peak service as is arriving every ten minutes. This minor variation would keep riders informed of when the next bus is coming and allow for easier travel planning. Without this basic information, prospective customers are more likely to give up with the hastle of figuring out off peak scheduling and routing in off peak times in favour of the car. Besides, isn't getting cars off the road what VIVA was supposed to be all about? Therefore, figure out a better way to provide a basic schedule for your customers back up on your website!

Scheduling becomes an issue when you short turn some VIVA vehicles. This happenned to me while waiting for a southbound VIVA Orange to Downsview Station from York University. One bus which clearly said "VIVA Orange" then changed to "To Downsview Station" drove right past me. I was literally hugging the VIVA stop sign at York and still the vehicle kept moving. I caught up to the vehicle because it was caught in traffic. I asked the driver what was going on, she said she had been short turned in order to head back North-West back to Martin Grove. Therefore, why does the VIVA vehicle still say "To Downsview Station"? Nevermind, there was another VIVA Orange due in three minutes. But at least the short turning vehicles should be taken offline from the electronic schedules at the VIVA stops as well as changing the vehicles sign board before arriving at the last stop on the route. This will indicate to any prospective riders that the vehicle is either out of service or reversing its route.

Garbage and Recycling with York Region Transit and VIVA is a complete joke. At most VIVA stations there is either a waste and/or recycling receptacle available or nothing at all. The only thumbs up I give is to the York University station. But that is because the university provides the recycling (both paper and beverage containers) bins. Otherwise, VIVA and YRT need a lot of work in this area.

Bernard Terminal (on VIVA Blue) only has garbage receptacles and these are easily filled to overflowing due to the high traffic in and out of this terminal and the fact that there are several fast food locations (e.g McDonald's, Burger King, Swiss Chalet, Tim Hortons, etc.) in this area that passengers frequent before and after boarding YRT and VIVA services. There isn't even a recycling receptacle even though there are free newspapers (e.g. Metro, 24 Hours, etc.) being distributed on YRT vehicles.

Richmond Hill Centre Station (on VIVA Blue & Purple) has some promise. There are receptacles for both trash and recycling. However, the recycling receptacles aren't labeled for what items can be put in. For example in Toronto the curbside boxes indicate what goes into what slot of the bin (e.g. newspapers, cans, #1 & #2 plastics, etc.). The receptacles at Richmond Hill Centre just say "Recycle." Recycle what exactly? Orange peels, the McDonald's Big Mac Package, my YRT transfer, Coke can,....where does each one of thes go?

York Region gave the contract to Belgian based VanHool for the production of the VIVA vehicles. I admit, I have been politically incorrect to start, the VIVA vehicles are not "buses" they are "RTVs" according to VIVA. Besides that there are several questions in terms of operation of these vehicles. How will these vehicles deal with a Canadian winter? I ask this in terms of how can Van Hool have any experience with designing vehicles to handle poor road conditions that are sure to occur in York Region during the winter. I noted in the 1990s that sometimes the older OCTranspo articulated buses (Ottawa's transit agency) are forced off the road when a heavy snowstorm sets in. Is this going to happen on the "backbone" of the VIVA system when a snowstorm moves in on the mainly articulated bus dominated VIVA Blue route?

Another issue is the fact that all doors are opened on the VIVA vehicles when boarding. This obviously lets either all the heat out (winter) or all the air conditioned air out (summer). Does this mean passengers must either freeze their buts off or roast in the respective seasons in order to ride VIVA? That may drive more people to take to the comfort of their cars. Perhaps the use of the "door open" push buttons on the inside and outside the vehicles might be useful instead of having the driver automatically open the doors. This would solve this problem.

The vehicles themselves are currently in mixed traffic. This causes issues in some areas as VIVA operates through some of York Region's most heavily congested areas. VIVA Blue seems to struggle somedays to travel down Yonge Street south of Major Mackenzie Drive past Sixteenth/Carville down to the Highway 7/407 area. Why because of the severe traffic congestion caused by non-synchronized traffic lights. In 2003 I have taken a GO Bus through this area at six A.M. when there was very little traffic on the road and it still had to stop at at least two traffic lights. Add a few more cars and this area is chaos! Even worse is Highway 7 and Keele Street. VIVA purple, heading west and then south, makes a left turn at Highway 7 & Keele Street. In the morning peak period VIVA Purple waits two to three sets of lights in order to make the left turn onto Keele Street. Then this same route heads south to York University on Keele which is also heavily congested. It is no wonder that VIVA Purple is slow and often behind schedule according to some drivers.

Dedicated transit lanes are what is required here. I am not indicating merely adding another lane to existing traffic flow that car drivers can abuse. These lanes are currently not working in Toronto as these lanes are simply not enforced. A Transitway that mirrors Yonge Street is what is required. YRT and VIVA should investigate Ottawa's Transitway system that OCTranspo vehicles currently use. OCTranspo has seen significant increases in ridership and awards for. The OCTranspo rapid transit vehicles run on their own road system. In some cases it is faster to take OCTranspo vehicles than it is to drive. Quick and Convenient the Ottawa Transitway is to riders just like the dedicated streetcar lanes are on Spadina to the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). If VIVA and YRT buses were to use these types of lanes, the problems of congestion on Yonge Street and Highway 7/Keele Street would not be an issue for YRT/VIVA customers. These lanes are set for stage 2 of VIVA after the current service is fully operational (see January 2006 and beyond).

The VIVA stop shelters are a little to be desired. Sure they look futuristically cool, but the open concept will not help when the Canadian winter winds start whistling. Will passengers be willing to deal with these stations or will they return to their cars?

VIVA services, once a few things are straightend out, has promise for the future. Some problems can be easily fixed by examining the issues I have highlighted above. Others will require some long term planning and construction costs which are already planned for. VIVA is on the right track, however, there are bumps that need to be ironed out (e.g. driver breaks, wast receptacles, etc.) that can be done right away at little to no cost. Yet, in some cases like the station shelters and VIVA door operation, there is a sense of "what were they thinking?" But, hopefully VIVA will be a success in the future. York Region Commuters can only hope and pray that VIVA does, otherwise the current congestion will only get worse.

Update:
Transit Toronto has posted an outline of VIVA service complete with pictures of one of the articulated vehicles.

3 comments:

  1. You've raised a lot of good points. I was under the impression that VIVA was supposed to have the facility to control local traffic lights to keep running on schedule. However, my experience has been still a lot of waiting at stoplights. My concern is the need to turn into Richmond Hill Terminal for transfers from the Blue Line. You lose 3-4 minutes on the southbound trip. 1 minute of which is what else but waiting for the traffic lights? I also want VIVA to be a success as the traffic in the GTA is getting to be a nightmare. Maybe we've got to take it step to step. It would be nice to be up and running perfectly right away, or have a subway or LRT, but then we wouldn't see any implementation for years which will be too late.
    Hopefully some of these minor things can be fixed up quickly to improve the system and encourge people on to public transit.

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  2. Hey dude, this post needs an abstract. Jeeze. =o)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just layin out how I feel. Wanted to provide an in depth view on how I felt about VIVA (both good and bad).

    ReplyDelete

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